Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The 2019 playoffs are total chaos. Is that good? It depends on your door

The​ 2019 NHL playoffs​ are​ chaos.

On​ that,​ we​ can​ all agree.​ The argument comes​ with the second​ half​ of the equation,​​ which we’ll get to in a minute. But chaos? Honestly, that might be underselling it.

As far as things playing out as expected, we’ve got the Maple Leafs and Bruins going to Game 7, which we all figured was coming. The Capitals are in good position to beat the Hurricanes, although it’s been a tougher battle that most one-versus-wildcard matchups. The Islanders were technically the favorite over the Penguins, although nobody saw that one ending in four.

Beyond that? Madness. The first round has been a steady stream of upset exits, ranging from mildly surprising (Jets) to shocking (maybe the Predators Monday) to stunning (Flames) to incomprehensible (Lightning). Both top seeds are out, and it’s possible that all four division winners could be done in Round 1. The Islanders might be the only home-ice team to make it out alive. I don’t know what your bracket looks like, but I know it’s busted, and I wouldn’t be shocked if more than a few of you are staring down the possibility of an oh-for-eight.

That should be pretty close to impossible, but here we are. Nothing makes sense, nobody knows what’s going on, and none of us have the slightest clue what’s going to happen next. It’s chaos. We all agree.

Here’s the part where the argument starts: Is all this chaos a good thing?

I’ve asked that question in a few places, and something very strange happens whenever I do. Take this tweet, which quotes from a post I wrote a few weeks ago and then adds what seems like a reasonably lukewarm take: “I’m not sure this kind of Tampa upset is really a good thing for the NHL.” I tweeted that a week ago, and lots of people called me an idiot. That’s not strange – it’s Twitter, you can’t say anything without getting called an idiot. But the reaction was split almost exactly down the middle, with half of the people in the “Can you believe this idiot?” camp and half on the “Yep, this is how I feel too” side of the fence.

Here’s the strange part: More than a few fans on both sides didn’t seem to understand why the point even needed to be made. It was either the dumbest thing they’d ever heard, or the most obvious. There were all these hockey fans, just about evenly divided, who didn’t even seem to be aware that the other side of the debate even existed. It was Yanny vs. Laurel for the NHL playoff crowd.

It’s weird. Even when hockey fans get really mad over replay review or suspensions or fighting or whatever else, they tend to at least be aware that there’s another side. Not here. All of these upsets are obviously a good thing. Or they’re very obviously not. Why are we even talking about this?

I think I’ve figured out what’s going on.

Picture yourself standing in front of two doors. It’s Day 1 of the playoffs, when everything is still all shiny and new and nobody’s brackets are busted yet. You’re about to settle in for two months of NHL postseason action. But first, you have to decide which door you want to go through. You’re probably going to pick the same door you pick every year. You’re probably so used to picking that door that you don’t even realize the other one is there. But which door you pick ends up deciding a lot about how you view the playoffs, and whether you’re enjoying this year’s edition.

The first door stars with a belief, and it goes like this: The best team always wins the Stanley Cup.

It’s not the team with the best regular season record, because while the regular season tells us something, it’s not enough. It’s not the team with the biggest stars, or even the most talent top-to-bottom. It’s not the team with the best special teams or the smartest coach or the loudest fans or even the hottest goaltender, because while all of that certainly helps, it can only take you so far. And that’s what it’s all about: How far you can go.

One team goes all the way, while the other fifteen go home. When it’s over, one team is left standing, and that team is the best. They always were, even if we didn’t realize it until the very end.

In essence, if you choose door No. 1, you view the Stanley Cup playoffs as a two-month tournament designed to reveal the identity of the best team. The system can be ruthlessly efficient, discarding some teams almost immediately. It can also tease us with fakes and misdirection, baiting us into thinking we’ve figured out the identity of the best team, only to have the case dramatically collapse, leaving some other team as the new favorite.

But the key point is that the best team always wins. The occasional controversy aside, the system has a pretty much perfect success rate. It’s brutal and exhausting for everyone involved, but it works, and in the end the best team is left standing. They win because they’re the best. They’re the best because they won.

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